Stealing Pears: We All Want To, But Why?

By JP Sullivan & Joe Ahmad

First, refresh your knowledge of Saint Augustine’s Confessions with this helpful rap video:

In the second book of Confessions, St. Augustine relates to us how he and his friends stole pears from a neighbor’s grove. What bothered Augustine was not the act of stealing, but the pleasure he derived from the act. In fact he and his companions had no practical use for the pears, for they were not hungry, and they threw most of them away. Frustrated, he writes,

But it was not the pears that my unhappy soul desired. I had plenty of my own, better than those, and I picked them so that I might steal. For no sooner had I picked them than I threw them away, and tasted nothing in them but my own sin, which I relished and enjoyed. (II.6)

For the rest of the second book, Augustine wrestles with the question of why he and his companions felt pleasure in stealing the pears. He makes two conjectures. The first is that he felt pride from the thrill of breaking the rules. He writes,

Since I had no real power to break [God’s] law, was it that I enjoyed at least the pretence of doing so, like a prisoner who creates for himself the illusion of liberty by doing something wrong, when he has no fear of punishment, under a feeble hallucination of power? (II.6)

By attempting to break God’s law, or more generally, the natural law, Augustine remarks that he was trying to imitate God, by showing that he was God’s equal and free from the jurisdiction of his law.

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One Hundred Years of Brain Images

Cajal Purkinje Drawing
Mo Costandi, who runs the excellent Neurophilosophy blog, has a wonderful piece over at MIT’s Technology Review, Time Travel through the Brain. The article gives us ten images that represent how our ability to see and visualize what our brains do, with accompanying commentary on each image. There is also a minute-long video on the right hand side which is also worthy viewing – so please look for that too.

I’ve included the first and tenth images here, but for more, go over to Time Travel through the Brain.

Schultz Thalamus Diffusion Tensor

How Bright Might A “Neuro Future” Be?

Neuro Revolution
By Stephan Schleim

Looking for a “Neuro Revolution”? Zack Lynch wants to offer you one in his new book.

With a title like Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World and the author celebrated as a leading technology consultant and market researcher in marketing blurbs, readers might expect the author’s opinion to be based on the state of the art of neuroscience. However, frequent mistakes and shortcomings in his presentation of the scientific findings and methodology seriously call into question whether Lynch is the right person to sketch a possible “neuro future” and to address the prospects and limitations of neurotechnology.

The first surprise comes on page 3, where Lynch describes his first experience with a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner, one of the most frequently-used research tools in contemporary cognitive neuroscience. He explains that “the machine’s computer had recorded and analyzed data about how those loud thumping noises had bounced back from the structures under my skin.” To uninformed people, the noise of high-field MRI scanners will indeed be one of their most salient features. However, it is a mere epiphenomenon subject to the sophisticated technology necessary to change strong magnetic fields in short intervals. The technique itself is based on inaudible electromagnetic waves (like those emitted by a cellphone) to investigate brain structure and function.

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Gambling and Compulsion: Neurobiology Meets Casinos

Slot MachinesBy Jarred Carter, Andrew Cavanagh, Elizabeth Olveda, and Meredith Ragany

Vegas baby, Vegas!

So you’ve finally made it out to Sin City, setting aside a few hundreds dollars to gamble. Maybe even a thousand. You’re hoping to get lucky and have some fun. A few hours and a half-dozen drinks into your weekend, you find yourself at the craps table, dice in hand. You’re feeling good, ready to turn your recent down streak into big bucks. Where does that leave you?
Right where the casino wants you.

The game is rigged. Everyone loses money eventually, if not immediately. But just like gamblers grab hold of that lever and pull, society has stepped up to the gambling craze. And now gambling is pulling people for all they’re worth: emotionally, mentally and, most notably, financially.

This post will look more closely at casino’s techniques to draw gamblers back to the slot chairs and the tables, focusing on both physiological aspects and engaged decision making. Ultimately, these observations will demonstrate that casinos create more than entertainment; they develop an entire compulsive experience.

The Gambler’s Rush

The casino’s greatest asset might be the very personal, very intense rush that gamblers experience as they step up to the blackjack table or slot machine, hoping to strike it rich. This characteristic “rush” or “high” stems from the series of steps and actions that are involved in addictive behavior. Stimulation from the surrounding atmosphere and the thrill of a big risk drives the “high”. Ultimately, the “rush” from gambling can be as intense as a drug fix.

Dealing Emotions

Excitement, making a quick buck, or even the possibility of financial independence is enticing. From experience, most people know that emotions are difficult to control. From a neurological standpoint, the amygdala is situated in the limbic system and is one main centers of emotion (pdf) in the human brain. Other parts of the brain, like the prefontal cortex, display less activity (pdf) during the act of gambling.

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Escaping Orientalism in cultural psychology

eastwest1In a recent article in American Psychologist, Adam Cohen (2009) suggests that a number of fields in psychology have taken up the study of culture, but the results, although interesting, have been limited by what sorts of ‘culture’ have been investigated. As Cohen (2009:194) writes:

A person reading these literatures could be excused for concluding that there is a very small number of cultural identities (North American vs. East or Southeast Asian), that vary principally on the dimensions of individualism–collectivism or independent–interdependent self-construal—whether people are seen as inherently independent from others or whether social roles are most important in defining the self.

In this post, I want to provide a bit of a bibliography of some of the literature fast emerging on cultural difference in psychology, neuroimaging, and related fields, but also focus a bit on the consequences of this limited imagination in considering cultural difference, the almost exclusive focus on East-West contrasts. Just because I love a bit of controversy with my breakfast, I’ll suggest it’s a form of what Edward Said has called ‘Orientalism.’

Although Cohen brings up the issue and offers a few suggestions for how the problem might be addressed, I think his prescriptions would herald more of the same sickness, although perhaps spreading the infection to more hosts. That is, Cohen puts his finger on a serious problem in the psychological study of culture, but the prognosis won’t improve much unless we actually understand the root of the problem: it’s not studying Europeans (and European-Americans) and Asians (and Asian-Americans) that’s causing the whole problem. Part of it is misunderstanding what is being studied in the first place when cultural difference is under the lens.

This post is based on part of a talk I gave on Tuesday to the Centre for Cognitive Science (MACCS) here at Macquarie. When I got into the subject, I realized it was far more than I could possibly share in a 50-minute presentation, so I thought I’d post it here.

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Thinking to change your brain: Sharon Begley in the WSJ

In January, The Wall Street Journal carried a short excerpt from science writer
Sharon Begley’s excellent, but unfortunately titled book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. The article, How Thinking Can Change the Brain, is excellent, as is the book, which I’d highly recommend, but both engage in a couple of pervasive rhetorics for talking about brain function that I believe make it harder to really theorize about issues like neuroplasticity.

That is, although I like Begley’s work, some of the ways that she writes about the brain puts her readers, if they’re not already neuroscience savvy, two steps backwards before moving toward greater understanding. It’s sad because I think her book is one of the best works for a general readership on recent research, and the brain imaging projects with Tibetan monks which forms the central narrative of the book are fascinating on so many levels. Begley has a brilliant eye for turning research into story-telling and with the meditation research, she’s picked an ideal subject on which to exercise her skills.

If only she would stop carrying on about ‘Mind’ and ‘Brain’ like they were the two primary characters…

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